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Ethanol, immigrants and healthcare

Area residents gather for Ernst town hall and ask questions about the issues that affect them

September 3, 2019
Amy H. Peterson - Staff Writer ( , Estherville News

Senator Joni Ernst hosted a town hall at Estherville Lincoln Central High School Saturday morning. Several residents asked questions ranging from concerns about the effects of the recent fuel waivers on the ethanol industry as well as access to mental health care and stemming the rate of illegal immigration.

Bob Jensen of Estherville expressed his concern over the Environmental Protection Agency's grant of 31 exemptions for small oil refineries from rules that would require them to blend corn-based ethanol into their fuel supplies. Corn growers in Iowa are already grappling with lost revenue from crops that have lost their market.

Ernst serves on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

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"I know farmers are feeling the hit of the waivers," Ernst said. Ernst noted a number of the alleged small refineries are actually owned by large fuel corporations like Exxon and Chevron. Ernst said she has spoken directly to President Trump twice on the issue.

"I understand the anger. It's an emotional issue and an economic issue," Ernst said.

The president called Ernst back with a list of items developed with the EPA, she said.

"I told him these are positive changes, but they're not immediate enough to help us right nowthey need to understand how important it is to maintain the renewable fuel standard. Ethanol is a much more earth-friendly fuel," Ernst said.

Ernst also addressed the current trade war between the Trump administration and China.

"Yesterday I had a couple of folks come up to me after the various meetings I had, and they said, 'Things are tough right now, but I will tighten my belt a little bit because I know that this is really important to get right.' You know, they have children, they have grandchildren who will be in their farm operation someday, and if China continues to treat us the way they have treated us in the past, that will not be good, so they said, 'if we can get a deal right with China, we want to do that.'" Ernst said.

Ernst explained more of her view on environmental issues.

"Solar is not as big in Iowa as it is in other areas, but it does provide 10 percent of electricity in Iowa," Ernst said. She visited a new solar field in Iowa, which powers about 300 homes in Adams County, Iowa's least populated county. Almost 40 percent of Iowa's electricity is generated by wind energy. After current projects with companies like MidAmerican Energy, Tradewinds and Invenergy are up and running, the rate will be up to 80 percent.

"We need to harness the potential with research and development of battery and storage capacity," Ernst said.

Peg Mason of Estherville wanted to know if there was federal help for children's mental health. Mason said currently in rural Iowa, it is a two-to-four hour drive to get a child into a facility, and long drives for needs as simple as the monthly medication management appointments required once a person with mental illness has been assessed and is put on prescription medications.

Ernst said, "We need to close the gap for mental health care in rural areas of Iowa. There are some successes," Ernst said, citing a facility in Decatur, Iowa that serves both outpatient and inpatient needs.

"What I want to do is visit Decatur and the other places that are having success and see how we can involve that level of care in our rural areas," Ernst said. The senator said she believes public/private partnerships can cover the needed care to high standards in rural areas.

"Lots of folks need help and they can't drive hours to get it," Ernst said.

Ernst said she does not consider mental health care to be at a crisis level, but "it is a very big issue," she said.

Jeff Soper of Estherville said he was concerned about Emmet County's status as the fastest shrinking county in Iowa.

"I am raising three kids. We are hurting for doctors, for the [public school K-12] budget, for jobs to come back, to do something to get more population growth," Soper said.

Ernst said, "I live in the rural area. It's up to us as rural legislators to push the federal government. As more and more people move to urban areas, the population shift will also shift the location of representatives."

Ernst serves on the rural development sub-committee of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Ernst said she feels broadband is key to developing rural areas of the U.S.

"I think [broadband] is a huge part of that. As we're looking at any sort of business opportunities in our rural centers, whether it's agriculture, whether it's telehealth with our medical facilities, whether it is precision agriculture, we have to have broadband in our rural areas. It really has become key to so many activities," Ernst said.

John Skrepak asked about the citizenship question on the 2020 U.S. Census. Skrepak said not having a citizenship question favors blue states where more foreign nationals reside. Skrepak said northwest Iowa is "inundated with illegal immigrants."

According to 2016 data, the latest available from the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank and research group, there were 10.7 million unauthorized immigrants, the lowest level in a decade at the time, in the U.S. with the vast majority living in six states: California, Texas, Florida, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois. The estimated unauthorized immigrant population in Iowa was estimated at 50,000, which is 1.7 percent of Iowa's population as a whole and 31 percent of all immigrants to the state. Thirty-one percent of the unauthorized immigrants are K-12 students with unauthorized immigrant parents.

Ernst said, "The census issue will largely be decided within the administration and through the courts as well. I can voice that we should only be counting American citizens in the census, and I do think that is appropriate. It may be good to know how many other folks are residing in the area, but the census because our districts are based off those census blocs, we want to be sure we are counting people who are American citizens who would be eligible to vote."

Ernst also said it is vital to enforce immigration laws with employers who pull unauthorized immigrants across the border to their workplaces. "I think we do need to make sure we are modernizing our legal immigration system, but that we are also working on securing our border and making sure those folks who are entering the U.S. have the proper documentation to enter, and also focusing some of those efforts on the other side. We want employers to do the right thing."

When Senator Ernst was elected, she vowed to emulate Senator Charles Grassley, Iowa's senior senator, and visit all of Iowa's 99 counties each year.



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